Divisions within liberalism
Föreläsning vid Statsvetenskapliga institutionen, Yale
University, 8 April 2010
To make it easier to follow my presentation, I will
tell you what I am going to do. I will first describe an early division within
liberalism. Then I will move on to more modern times and try to show that this
division has remained important. I will give two examples, first a famous
dispute between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey in the 1920s with important
implications for the role of the news media, and then the conflicting views
among liberals about the proper relationship between capital and labor,
employers and unions.
guess that you have all heard the expression “classical liberalism” –
without any further explanation. I believe that those who use those words are
the victims of an illusion, because if you read the most important liberal
philosophers from John Locke to John Stuart Mill you will find that liberalism
already at that time was much diversified and contained many contradictions.
is an important difference between the liberal philosophy of the Enlightenment
and the liberalism that became important in Europe after the French revolution
and the Napoleonic wars. Liberalism in the 18th century was founded
by John Locke. Its most important theory is about natural human rights, which
Locke derived from secular reason. In the state of nature everyone has the
right to protect his own person, his life, liberty and property against an
offender, actually a right to punish. Locke called it the right to execute the
law of nature. When the people adopted a social compact by general consent and
entered political society they made it the duty of the Government to protect
the individuals and to punish offenders. If the Government violated the
compact, the individual resumed his former right to execute the law. According
to Locke everyone is entitled to kill a tyrant, as you kill a wild animal.
the political situation of the late 17th century, this was a revolutionary
theory. Locke legitimized the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688 and
inspired the American Revolution and the French Revolution. Locke was the Karl
Marx of his time. The American historian Joyce Appleby has said that the
driving force of the early liberals was outrage – outrage against
tyranny, privilege, censorship, serfdom and arbitrary power.
all the wars and bloodshed in the wake of the French revolution liberalism in
Europe became very different. Liberals in the 19th century favored
reconciliation and political stability, they were reformers between
revolutionaries and reactionaries, and they wanted to preserve the
modernization of society that had taken place after 1789. Also from a
philosophical point of view they were different from the liberals of the
Enlightenment. They were influenced by Immanuel Kant and German romanticism,
and also by Edmund Burke and Friedrich Hegel as sharp-eyed critics of
liberalism. Liberalism became eclectic, a mixture of various elements.
happened in Europe. But in America the Lockean human rights-liberalism was
preserved in the shape it had at the time of the Declaration of independence,
the Constitution and the Bill of rights. It did not meet strong competition
from other schools of political thought. There was in America nothing like the
Tory tradition in England with roots in feudalism, monarchy and clerical power.
And there was nothing like the European Jacobinism, which kept alive the ethos
of social revolution from the most radical period of the French revolution.
Enlightenment liberalism became the America Faith. It was both an ideal and a
national self-image – a view of America as a free republic with equal
rights for all. The word feudalism was popular. The absence of feudalism was
what distinguished America from Europe.
liberalism in America had to overcome was not conservatism or socialism but
rather classical republicanism, but that was no longer a viable philosophy.
America was already too modern.
historian Louis Hartz wrote a book, “The Liberal Tradition in America”, in
the1950s. He said, “Locke dominates American political thought, as no thinker
anywhere dominates the political thought of a nation”. And he said that there
has never been a liberal movement or a real liberal party in America. In a
certain sense liberalism was “a stranger in the land of its greatest
realization and fulfilment”. Hartz wrote about an irrational Lockeanism, a kind
of liberal absolutism, which had become known to the world as Americanism. He
wrote the book under the impression of McCarthyism.
kind of absolutism was present already in John Lockeęs own writings – the
absolutism of a revolutionary theory.
early liberalism is different from later liberalism, and American liberalism is
different from liberalism in Europe. Still there are some principles all
liberals hold in common:
such principle is secularism. The first liberal breakthrough was when it became
possible during and after the renaissance to write about the physical world,
about nature and the planets, without religious censorship. The next stage was
when secularism was accepted also in studies of man and society. Niccoló
Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes were the most shockingly Godless of these
second point is individualism, which is almost the same as universalism. Both
reject a collectivism that prescribes not only how individuals must behave but
also what they should believe and feel. Nationalism is the most obvious
third point is constitutionalism, the rule of law. Public power must be
controlled, the authorities must be held responsible. This idea is linked to
the distinction between state and society. Where this distinction is absent, as
in feudalism and in utopian socialist thought, there is no room for constitutional
last point is that all liberals recognize that the market economy is to some
extent self-regulating and capable of producing great wealth. In Adam Smiths
days the transition to a market economy presupposed a radical reorganization of
society. The state had to be limited in its scope, but at the same time the
state must have a monopoly on coercive power. Constitutionalism and the market economy made the same
demands on the organization of public power.
far, I have not used the word freedom. Thatęs a difficult word, like justice
– everyone is in favor, nobody against. Lord Acton found 200 definitions
of liberty. But freedom is a necessary element of each of the four liberal
principles. Secularism and universalism implies intellectual freedom, they
reject the supremacy of the church or of any other collective body. Constitutionalism implies political
freedom. And, obviously, the market economy has much to do with personal
my view Immanuel Kant was more important than any other person in leading
liberalism in a new direction after the French revolution. As a moral
philosopher he opposed the ideas of the Enlightenment. John Locke, the French
encyclopaedists, and Jeremy Bentham believed that human beings are by nature
incurable egoists. Every human motive is only self-interest in disguise. Their
view of man was deterministic and mechanistic, and their understanding of
society was much inspired by the natural sciences, in particular physics. The
ethical theory that grew from this philosophy was based on the idea of
Kant rejected this pseudo-ethic. He postulated that human beings have a free
will. He didnęt state this as a fact. But he thought that we must believe in
such freedom, otherwise there is no important difference between human beings
and animals. He derived the moral law from human reason, not from religion.
That was a secularist breakthrough in moral philosophy and a challenge to the
authority of the Church. It has been said that Kantęs ethical theory is the
greatest contribution of philosophy to liberalism ever.
had an idea about international peace. In his time and during the 19th century it was taken for granted that a permanent international peace must be
based on a stable balance of power between the states. Kant objected that a
house could be so neatly balanced that it falls down if a sparrow lands on its
roof. In 1914 a sparrow landed on the house of Europe in the shape of a gunshot
in Sarajevo. Kantęs own theory was that permanent international peace
presupposes that every state has a republican form of government. Today we
would say a democratic form of government. In Kantęs days this was only a
theory, today we know that he was right. Democratic nations never go to war
against each other.
of Kantęs important political ideas was about property and ownership. John
Locke had said that a man belongs only to himself, in the law of nature.
Therefore a man is the owner of what he produces with his own hands. If he
cultivates a piece of virgin soil this becomes his property, and he can
increase his wealth through exchange and trade. Kant objected that in the state
of nature there can be no ownership, only possession, because ownership is
conditioned by the laws of society. Where there is property, there is also a
complicated system of legislation and precedents.
Lockeęs philosophy ownership is a relationship between a person and an object,
while Kant saw ownership as a relationship between human beings in society,
regulated in a way that is generally accepted. That makes a great difference.
And I think it is fair to say that the American tradition is more close to
Locke, while the European liberal tradition is more close to Kant.
should keep these two philosophers in mind when I now turn to something else.
late in the 18th century it was generally believed that political
freedom and a republican form of government is possible only in a small state,
like ancient Athens and Rome and the medieval city-states in northern Italy. A
large state, an empire, can have an advanced civilization but not a popular
government. The first political philosopher who thought differently was, as far
as I know, James Madison. He thought that the people is the only source of
political authority and that the United States of America must be a free and
genuine republic, without the strong elements of monarchy and aristocracy that
were advocated by John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. The government must be the
expression of the will of the whole society, not only of the will of a power
believed that even a large nation with a population spread over a continent
could be a community, strong enough to support truly republican institutions.
Improved communications and newspapers with a large readership would make such
a community possible. Madison was much influenced by European ideas about the
role of public opinion. Alexander Hamiltonęs idea was very different. He
thought that rise in production and trade would reduce discontent and make the
dominance of a ruling elite politically stable.
hundred years later the combination of popular government and capitalism
brought a great deal of disillusion about democracy, in America and elsewhere.
In the 1920s two important liberal philosophers, Walter Lippmann and John
Dewey, analysed the relationship between the state, the electorate and the
public interest in a way that has seldom been surpassed. Lippmann wrote two
books: “Public Opinion” in 1922 and “The Phantom Public” in 1927. Deweyęs book
“The Public and its Problems” in 1927 was, obviously though only implicitly, a
retort against Lippmann.
of them accepted the modern industrial society without reservations, and they
were both greatly influenced by the philosophy of pragmatism. Lippmann wrote
that political ideas should be tested by trial and error, he praised the
“experimental method in social science”. Dewey called his own philosophy
“experimentalism”. Both painted a dismal picture of democracy as it was in America
in the 1920s. A series of progressive electoral reforms – like open
primaries, popular elections of senators and judges and women suffrage –
had not in fact increased the political influence of ordinary people. The
turnout in elections had gone down since the 1880s, both major parties were run
by “political machines”, the power of large corporations seemed limitless. The
people were the source of authority only in theory.
word “public” was the starting point for both Lippmann and Dewey. What is the
proper role in a democracy of the general public and of public opinion? Here
the two philosophers differed.
thought that the Progressivist view of democracy was founded on an illusion.
The general voter will never have the necessary knowledge and understanding to
make good political decisions. The issues are too many and too complicated;
information in the media is fragmented, superficial and biased. The competence
to make good decisions is to be found mainly among the insiders in the executive
sphere. Those who vote in general elections will always remain outsiders.
Therefore the political role of the general public should be strictly limited.
The voters should not be expected to take sides in specific political issues,
instead they should try to find out which party or which political leaders are
most likely to establish a modus vivendi, a mutual understanding between
different views and interest groups. To vote for those in office when things go
well and to vote for the party in opposition when things go badly is “the
essence of popular government”, according to Lippmann. In his theory there was
hardly any room for values, other than modus vivendi and social order.
He said nothing about justice, human rights or the common good.
Progressive movement in America claimed that the people represent the public
interest against all the separate interests. Lippmann objected that this was
“naēve democratic sentimentalism”, based on the belief in a mystical entity
called the Society, the Nation or the Community. In fact what we have to deal
with are only networks of social relations.
at this point John Dewey thought differently. The society and the public is not
a fiction or a mask before private demands for power and positions. It is true that
wishes, ideas and purposes exist only in individuals, but their content and
object are not necessarily personal or private. What people think and what they
wish is shaped by their mutual relationships. Human beings can develop a true
public spirit, a commitment to the common good.
Both Lippmann and Dewey thought that the
social sciences should be a major force in shaping a well-ordered modern
society. Lippmann wanted to “interpose some form of expertness between the
private citizen and the vast environment in which he is entangled”. He
suggested that every department in Washington should have an independent
“intelligence bureau” as a link between the administration and the congress as
a means “to overcome the central difficulty of self-government, the difficulty
of dealing with an unseen reality”.
bureaus should have two purposes. They should provide social research and
expert evaluations as a service to insiders and decision-makers and at the same
time help ordinary citizens to grasp the real character of political issues.
But the emphasis was on the needs of the insider. Lippmann wrote:
purpose, then, is not to burden every citizen with expert opinions on all
questions, but to push that burden away from him towards the responsible
administrator. An intelligence system has value, of course, as a source of
general information. - - - But that is secondary. Its real use is as an aid to
representative government and administration both in politics and in industry.
This demand for the assistance of experts - - - comes not from the public, but
from men doing public business, who can no longer do it by the rule of thumb.”
Alexander Hamilton would have agreed one hundred percent in this elitist vision
of popular government.
Deweyęs idea was more optimistic and also more interesting. He saw the problem
that had been seen also by James Madison: By what means can a Great Society be
made a Great Community, where the common man is involved in the problems of
society not only because of his special interests but as a person with an idea
of the public good?
had a specific definition of the word “public”. He said that the public
consists of all people who are affected by the indirect consequences of various
transactions and changes in society in a way that causes real problems. He
thought of people whose jobs are threatened by the business cycles or who are
exposed to unhealthy pollution. Dewey said that the main difficulty in a modern
democracy is to take in and to understand the complicated chains of causes and
effects in society. Where important changes look haphazard, inexplicable and
threatening to ordinary people, the Great Society will not be a Great Community
– what he called “an including, in brotherhood united public”.
like Lippmann, saw at least a part of the solution in social science and expert
knowledge. But to him it was far from enough to supply better factual
information for the insiders in government and industry. He believed hat social
science had a potential to bring people together in a common understanding of
the causes of the problems in society and of the possible solutions. When Dewey
wrote this in 1927 his idea must have seemed utopian, because the social
sciences were then in their infancy. There were few researchers, there was a
lack of basic data, and methods and theories were crude. The news media in those were unfit to
evaluate and to edit information of this kind. So there were obvious objections
to Deweyęs vision of a modern democracy. His most recent biographer Alan Ryan
is not impressed. In his view Deweyęs theory is naēve.
think that Deweyęs arguments are important. When we say community instead of
society we tend to think of something emotional – feelings of shared
values, patriotism, personal ties to the culture, traditions and religion of a
certain place. The Germans say Gemeinschaft instead of Gesellschaft to make the
Dewey saw a community more in terms of shared understanding and knowledge,
something intellectual rather than emotional. The social sciences can make our
images of politics, industry and finance, the labor market, education, the
media, the welfare systems and the administration of justice more alike and
make public discussion about common problems more rational. The room for
prejudice, arbitrary opinions and dangerous simplifications can thus be
this can happen only if there are the means to report the findings of social
research to the public. Lippmann and Dewey were dissatisfied with the news
media of the 1920s, and there are reasons to be unhappy also today. High
quality newspapers are fighting an uphill battle, the structure of the Internet
not promote common knowledge and understanding, quite the opposite. But it is
too early to assess the long term effects of the electronic revolution.
Basically it is a good thing that it has become much easier and cheaper to make
information available to the public. The interplay between demand for
information and supply of information will always be important, regardless of
the technology. People who really want serious, correct information are in a
better position today than they ever have been. And advertisers will always
need attractive news media for commercials, but we donęt know what kind of
media structure will emerge from the present turmoil.
increasing demand for information based on social research is a pattern in a
modern society. Such information is often interesting news. Social research can
be made good reading, public discussion is often based on the findings of
research about the causes of bad health, crime, inequality, segregation,
unemployment and economic problems of all sorts. Opinion polls in particular
read two Swedish national dailies. For about a week I made a note of every
piece of news that was based on social research. Some of these pieces came from
the universities, others came from research departments of various authorities
and organizations. Many were little more than simple statistics.
an average there were three to four news stories a day of this kind in each
newspaper. I cannot say that John Deweyęs vision has been confirmed by this
little study. If I had done the same thing ten or twenty years ago, I think
that the harvest would have been greater and more convincing. The national
newspapers in Sweden suffer from a poor economy and are reducing their staffs.
Britain and many other European countries Sweden has public service radio and
television without commercials. It is payed for by a kind of tax on listeners
and viewers. These media are protected from government pressure and are
regarded as independent. In particular the radio is today a high quality
institution with a national audience. It has more money and staff than any newspaper. Radio channel 1 comes
close to John Deweyęs vision of the media in a democratic community.
the long run, universities and research institutes are more important than the
media. No doubt they could make the results of their work more of a common
knowledge. Universities could make their web sites a kind of news media, if
they are ready to use professional journalists for the task. Perhaps that is
already happening in America?
few more words about Lippmann. His idea that politics has only one fundamental
purpose, to achieve a modus vivendi, is close to the conception of
politics as power brokering, that became popular in American political science
in the 1930s. Lippmann has often been mentioned together with Harold Lasswell,
who wrote the book “Politics: Who gets What, When, How” in 1935. Special
interests are at the core of politics.
in his life Lippmann abandoned his moral scepticism. In a book in 1955 he
praised the liberal fathers of the 18th century for their “doctrine
of natural law”, a law that is above the ruler and the sovereign people. This
was a complete reversion of his earlier position. But he still had little
confidence in the voters and in public opinion. He wrote: “Where mass opinion
dominates the government, there is a morbid derangement of the true functions
of power. The derangement brings about the enfeeblement, verging on paralysis,
of the capacity to govern.” Lippmann called this a breakdown in the
constitutional order and a decline of Western society.
in the 1920s and in the 1950s Lippmann belonged to the Lockean mainstream in
America. Locke used the idea of “the law of nature” to make the pursuit of private interests legitimate.
The concept is almost empty from a moral point of view. The problem that
puzzled Locke – and Lippmann – was how to make the pursuit of
individual happiness mutually acceptable among all individuals. It had much to
do with the need for a modus vivendi.
is well known that John Dewey was deeply influenced by German philosophers, in
particular Kant and Hegel. His dispute with Lippmann confirms the difference
between two philosophical schools – the human rights liberalism of the
Enlightenment and the eclectic liberalism of the 19th century.
I turn to my last point.
you know Peter eight years ago published “Capitalists against Markets. The
Making of Labor Markets and Welfare States in the United States and Sweden”. It
is a great and innovative book, with a masterly treatment of a mass of
historical documents and data. Few Swedish scholars have said so many
interesting things about the Swedish labor market and our welfare policies.
few years before that, I wrote a book about America. Its title, translated from
Swedish, is “The War Against the Unions. A Study of the American Model”. Robert
Reich, Bill Clintonęs Secretary of Labor, had said that there was a war against
the unions in the Reagan years. So Peter and I have a common interest in labor
relations, and that’s why we came to know each other. We have both compared
America and Sweden in this respect.
American Civil War was followed by a period of laissez faire-capitalism. At the
same time economic policies in Sweden were extremely liberal. In both countries
workers started to organize, and industrial action became common, in particular
from the 1890s. But there was one important difference. In America state
intervention in industrial conflicts became more or less the order of the day.
Until 1932 the judiciary, in particular the federal courts, were in control of
the rules in the labor market, and most of them were anti-union. From 1877 to
1903 military forces were used against strikers in about 500 labor disputes.
Hundreds of workers were killed.
Supreme Court ruled in 1894, after the Pullman strike: “The strong arm of the
national government may be put forth to brush away all obstruction to
interstate commerce or to the transportation of the mails. If the emergency
arises, the army of the nation, and all its militia, are at the service of the
nation to compel obedience to the laws.”
will quote three well-known labor historians. William Forbath says: “Judge-made
law and legal violence limited, demented, and demoralized workersę capacities
for class-based social and political action.” Melvyn Dubofsky says: “The
policies and actions of the state substantially shaped the history of working
people and the movements that they built.” And Victoria Hattam: “A strong judiciary created a
politically weak labor movement in the United States.”
happened in the early, formative period. The Great Depression brought new
legislation and a new political climate that favored the labor unions, but
since about 1970 both legislators and the courts have returned to the earlier
tradition of repression, and the unions are again notoriously weak. Less than
ten per cent of all employees belong to unions.
scholars have found that “among those with a high school education or less,
belonging to a union adds nearly 20 percent to turnout levels [in elections]
over those who do not belong”. So state policies against the unions have
diminished workersę political participation and influence.
Sweden, laissez-faire liberalism meant that the state did not intervene in
labor disputes. The exceptions to this rule are few. Legislation about unions,
industrial action and collective agreements was minimal. In the absence of
state regulation, employers and unions had to establish the rules of the game
themselves, sometimes with the state as a mediator. The unions in Nordic
countries enjoyed more freedom from regulation than unions in any other part of
the world. And eventually they became very strong by any comparison. They were
the basis of Social Democracy and the welfare state.
freedom to organize and to act collectively in the labor market is the nucleus
of the Swedish model. It was made possible because the Swedish liberals were in
favour of the unions. In the formative period the liberals killed all attempts
to regulate the unions as long as most workers were denied the right to vote.
Broadly speaking, the same things happened in Denmark and Norway.
Sweden today 70 to 80 per cent of all employees belong to unions, and perhaps
90 per cent are covered by union contracts. Collective laissez faire, that is
government non-intervention, has promoted the integration of workers in society
and in politics.
put it shortly. American labor law has pushed American politics to the right.
Swedish labor law has pushed Swedish politics to the left.
facts mirror a conflict within liberalism. What is the proper relationship
between employers and workers, capital and labor? What should be the role of
the legislater? The issue has haunted liberals at least since the French
revolution, when labor unions were outlawed together with the guilds. Many liberals
have sided with the workers as the weaker party in the labor market and
supported the unions as a means to a balance of power in the workplace. Others
think that the freedom of contract of individual workers and employers must be
respected as a fundamental principle of a liberal order. They see collective
contracts and industrial action as a violation of both property rights and
personal freedom. The power of this opinion in America proves in my view the
strength of the Lockean tradition.
Sweden the human rights tradition has been strikingly absent. Human rights
became a constitutional issue only in the 1970s. John Locke and the so-called
Law of Nature was never an inspiration in Sweden. German culture and philosophy
was much more important. As a reformist movement Swedish liberalism was
eclectic. I believe that we see again, in the conflicting views among liberals
about trade unions, one more example of the early division within liberalism.